By Chris Daly, special to FogCityJournal.com
Editor’s Note: Photo captions by Luke Thomas.
November 12, 2010
Every four years, there’s one political contest that dominates San Francisco’s political landscape, and for good reason. The Mayor of San Francisco is not just the most prestigious position in City Hall, it is by far the most powerful. And the ability to sign or veto legislation is only the tip of the iceberg. With over 100 staffers in the Mayor’s Office, over 40 department heads, and hundreds of commission appointments, the Mayor of San Francisco has the resources to alter the course of the City, instantly creating new programs and initiatives. Always in the spotlight, the Mayor can set the course of political discussion and with unmatched ability to reward friends and penalize enemies, the Mayor can quickly raise political capital for allied political campaigns.
With respect to San Francisco’s $6.5 billion budget, we’ve seen how the Mayor of San Francisco is more powerful than all 11 Supervisors combined. The incumbent has unilaterally made mid-year cuts and replaced vital health and human services with more pork for his friends in the police and fire unions. In 2007, he refused to spend a veto-proof $28 million appropriation for affordable housing, and then redirected the monies into his pet programs in his subsequent budget submission. Even when the budget is in the Board’s hands, the Mayor makes technical adjustments and can even raise the budget’s ceiling, giving him the upper-hand in the Board’s deliberation of budget restorations.
With a systematic attack from downtown special interests, Progressives have been shut out of the Mayor’s Office for 20 years. While we have had success with district elections, where big money and the daily newspapers’ influence can be negated by direct contact with voters, the closest we’ve come to Room 200 was in 2003, when a Herculean late effort to elect Matt Gonzalez still came up 6 points short. Anyone involved in that race, or in Tom Ammiano’s underdog run in 1999, appreciates the opportunity we have now. In the next 2 months, the Board of Supervisors will decide everything that’s otherwise at stake in a grueling, citywide Mayor’s race. And while downtown is doing everything they can to influence or at least mitigate the outcome, no one should forget that 7 Supervisors got to the Board riding a wave of Progressive support.
And Progressives have no shortage of individuals who could step into the Mayor’s post in January and immediately outperform the incumbent. Tom Ammiano is the statesman for Progressive San Francisco. His record of public services is unsurpassed, having served from the School Board to the state capitol, with 14 years on the Board of Supervisors, including 2 terms as President. Aaron Peskin also has served as Board President for 2 terms, and as Chair of the Democratic Party, has done more to deliver for Progressive campaigns than any other individual. In the past 6 years, Ross Mirkarimi has posted some of the largest progressive wins in City Hall, and has inspired a national discussion on cutting edge environmental legislation. With a more limited tenure, David Campos and John Avalos have already taken the banner of the future of Progressive politics in San Francisco. Avalos has applied his unmatched community credentials to tackle 2 of the most difficult budgets in San Francisco history. Campos’s steadfast and whip-smart engagement has held the line on countless progressive issues.
Unfortunately, very little about a conventional leadership battle is progressive. Usually, by the time the leadership vote is taken, it has already been worked out. An “orderly process” that is not messy, almost always is based on backroom deals where select individuals are promised political favors and personal advancement, while entire constituencies and the public at large are left in the dark and out in the cold. This “orderly process” was well under way in City Hall, when Supervisor John Avalos called it out with the introduction of motions to provide for public comment on the process to appoint a successor Mayor and possible additional public comment on the action itself.
Immediately, the Newsom administration pushed back, “It sends the wrong message to the people of this city when those with designs on Room 200 start measuring the drapes before Mayor Newsom has even left office.” Never mind that once Newsom leaves office, somebody will immediately begin to occupy it. Newsom and downtown would love to put off a public discussion about this, because they are more comfortable with the backroom discussions. And the closer we can get to the next seating of the Board of Supervisors without a decision, the more likely that their calls for a “caretaker” or “placeholder” Mayor will come to fruition.
Meanwhile, the elusive 6th vote for a genuine Progressive successor Mayor has been quietly trying to assemble the votes for himself. David Chiu was elected to the Board of Supervisors with the near unanimous support of Progressive San Francisco. Without the Progressive sweep of the Democratic County Central Committee and the unflinching support from the past President of the Board of Supervisors, David Chiu would likely not have won his seat on the Board.
Once elected, Chiu cleverly positioned himself as a “compromise” candidate for Board President when no other Progressive could assemble the necessary 6 votes for the post. Starting as nobody’s first choice for Board President, Chiu slipped into the position on the 6th round of voting. Over the next 2 years, Chiu worked to recast himself as a centrist. While he sided with Progressives more often than not, David Chiu cast deciding votes for the Lennar Corporation against critical environmental and economic justice issues, cut deals behind Progressive backs with the Mayor on the budget, and blocked progressive Charter reform for MUNI, the Rec and Park Commission, and the Rent Board.
David Chiu must realize that he can no longer slip in as the “placeholder” candidate for the Progressives. His clearest path to Room 200 is through delay—putting up enough roadblocks in front of the current Board, so we do not make a decision before he assumes the Mayor post in an acting capacity on January 3rd. His best course is with the next Board of Supervisors, where 5 votes plus his own would keep him in Room 200. His math was made easier when his endorsed candidates (one with few progressive credentials) emerged the victors in District 6 and District 10. Chiu has introduced his own motion to direct the Clerk to develop a process to select the successor Mayor, even though existing Board rules already provide the Board that ability.
While Chiu’s proposed process has not yet been released, a preview of it included a super-majority threshold for adoption and sequestered Board members with the possibility of participation by lot. While it is uncertain whether the Board President or his supporters had any hand in creating the proposed process, it is clear that his process produces more obstacles and delay than necessary to select a successor Mayor. This strategy also is problematic for Progressives, because it plays into downtown’s hand, increasing the chance of either a “placeholder” Mayor or even someone from the Moderate political camp.
Progressive San Francisco has a once in a generation opportunity. We are at our best when we get out from behind closed doors and let the sun shine in. Progressive stakeholders, organizers, artists, activists, and everyday people have as much at stake right now as anyone else. It’s time that we hear from you. Please make your voice heard at this Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. We can’t afford to do it without you.